Anthony Quinn is veteran boxer Mountain Rivera, who is a punch away from blindness. So he sets about looking for something else to do, with the help of a sweet-natured employment consultant (Julie Harris), who sees the sensitive man behind the hulking frame, near-indecipherable speech, and loud manner. Unfortunately, Mountain’s long-time manager and friend Maish (a perfect Jackie Gleason) is in a financial bind, owing money to mobster Ma Greeny (Madame Spivy- incredible), and isn’t above manipulating his good buddy Mountain to fix his problems. Mickey Rooney plays Army, the veteran ‘cut man’ who genuinely cares for Mountain, and is disgusted by Maish’s behaviour.
Anthony Quinn gives an unforgettably moving performance in this 1962 Ralph Nelson (“Lilies of the Field”, “Charly”, “tick…tick…tick”) film written by Rod Serling (“The Twilight Zone”, “Planet of the Apes”) of all people. The film begins with a great tracking shot by cinematographer Arthur Ornitz (“A Thousand Clowns”, “Charly”, “Death Wish”), featuring a bunch of bar patrons, presumably boxers as they have that look of having their eyes punched into the back of their heads about them. The film has a particularly cool, stark B&W look for the non-boxing scenes too. The use of light and shadow in scenes such as the one where Jackie Gleason is cornered by crooks is terrific. In fact, the camerawork is excellent across the board, especially in fight scenes, such as the early one showing the woozy, blurry-eyed effects of boxing before settling on a close-up of the perfectly cast Quinn in all his awful, bashed-up glory. Here Quinn reminded me of a cross between Frankenstein’s pitiful monster, and Randy the Ram. Indeed, I’d be very surprised if the film (Nelson’s directing debut, by the way) weren’t an influence on the later “The Wrestler”, as they touch on a lot of the same themes and even have an unmistakably similar ending. He’s a hulking, lumbering monster with the soul of a human being inside.
This may in fact be the role and performance of Quinn’s career, and I’m glad he got the role instead of someone like say, Marlon Brando. Brando would’ve done the wheezing, mush-mouthed voice, but with a hollow centre. Quinn isn’t just technique, he’s really nailed the insides of this man. Quinn is backed up by one helluva supporting cast, with Jackie Gleason particularly memorable as a pathetic and desperate man who gets in over his head on debt to mobsters, manipulating his pal Quinn to make more money for him. He’s not a likeable man, but Gleason helps you understand the position he’s in. A middle-aged (and characteristically hammy, in the best sense) Mickey Rooney and Julie Harris provide the film’s only traces of light. Rooney makes for a nice, sympathetic contrast with Gleason, and plays well off Quinn, whose dialogue isn’t always easily discernible. Harris, meanwhile can be an overwrought performer at times, but not here in what may be her best film performance ever. She’s immediately right for the part. Mickey is likeable, Harris is sweet, and boy does the film need them. It’s a sad, heartbreaking, and shattering film, nearly every bit the equal of “The Harder They Fall”, and earlier film about the seamy side of the sweet science. It’s actually rather uncomfortable to watch at times.
Look out too, for an unusual and fascinating performance by former nightclub owner Madame Spivy as the film’s main heavy, gangster Ma Greeny. Spivy is indeed a woman, very unusual casting. Looking a bit like character actor Robert Emhardt, Spivy is probably not entirely convincing per se, but it’s nonetheless a compelling and memorable performance. I would’ve liked to have seen more of the character to be honest, as well as Harris’. To that, I must say I saw the cut version of the film, but it’s the most widely seen version of the film, and based on my research, nothing of great importance was cut (a little over 10 minutes worth of scenes, though), and only one scene with the Ma Greeny character seems to have been cut.
Meanwhile, the film is worth seeing just to witness Muhammad Ali play himself, amazingly humbly by his standards, as well as a cameo by fellow fighter Jack Dempsey. Gigantic pro wrestler Haystacks Calhoun appears at the very end of the film, but only seen from behind and at a distance. That’s one big sumabitch right there, folks. If there’s an issue I have with the film, it’s the favouritism of boxing over wrestling. Boxing can be a pretty dirty, disreputable sport, but wrestling is conveyed as a ridiculous cartoon and ‘fixed’. True, I know wrestling wasn’t always seen as it is today (where most fans know exactly what is and isn’t ‘real’ about it, and non-fans frankly don’t care), but I still think it’s an exaggeration of the sentiment of the time, for dramatic purposes. Even back then, a lot of people knew moves were choreographed to lessen impact and the finishes were pre-determined, so I can’t imagine it was seen as that bad a career move, and I doubt a boxer would get upset at taking a ‘dive’ as a wrestler. As someone who loves wrestling and hates boxing, I have to say I was offended by the sentiment.
A really strong, quite shattering look at boxing, very powerful and featuring several excellent performances.